Sport 38: Winter 2010
The Life and Deaths of Adeline Snow
Chapter one of a work in progess
Adeline loves her grandparents but hates the sulphurous smell of their water, a smell she can accept in January in Montana from hot springs feeding rivers or pools, but not from a tap in a pink-tiled bathroom in the flat land of Illinois in July. When she was little, when she smelled the odour of this water for the first time, she blamed it on her grandfather. Her mother, happy to teach anytime, anywhere, told Adeline about the aquifer feeding the household water supply.
'We won't wash your hair too often while we're here,' she said. 'When I was a girl the minerals gave my hair a pink tinge.'
Adeline hates the smell of her grandparents' water, but the day has been hot and thundery, and soaking in a lukewarm tub is the only way she will cool down tonight. In a borrowed bathrobe, its orange silk pooling at her feet, Adeline has accepted help she doesn't need—she can put up her own hair to keep it dry, to keep it from turning pink (she imagines herself with hair the colour of her grandparents' bathroom walls)—but she likes the way her grandmother's hands stroke and rake through her hair, arrange and pin it in place.
'There,' says her grandmother, running those hands down Adeline's bare neck and resting them on her shoulders. 'You're all set. Hop in.'
After the bath, Adeline scrubs herself dry with a towel, slides her cool limbs into cool pyjamas, and slips between cool sheets in the room her grandmother decorated just for her when she was born. When she isn't visiting, her grandparents use it as a study, but really it's all hers: turquoise-blue and white, with a mural of a street scene painted on the wall next to the narrow bed. She appreciates the lack of cuddly characters and the colour pink.
Her parents come to kiss her, and fuss with her sheets and ask page 48 her if she had a nice day. They leave her room holding hands when her grandparents come in. Her grandfather kisses her goodnight and leaves the bedtime story to her grandmother, who produces another story about Zaya the Divinely Beautiful, who lived on Earth in the time between gods and men. Adeline has outgrown Zaya, but doesn't know how to tell her grandmother this without hurting her feelings.
After the bath and the love and the long story, Adeline has to kick away sleep. She wants to lie comfortable and happy and listen as her parents and grandparents come upstairs and disperse for the night. She seeks the cool patches of her pillows and sheets, populates the street scene with figures from her imagination, and is wide awake when the grown-ups climb the stairs for bed, and for a long time after they have switched off their reading lamps.
In the morning, she knows she slept only because she remembers her dreams.
Adeline's grandparents live in a suburb with roads that meander like the streams in everyone's backyards, streams concealed by belts of trees spared to serve as natural beauty on otherwise cleared lots. Their house is built into a hill. Visitors who enter the house by the front door can go down a flight of stairs into the finished basement, walk through the back door onto a grey flagstone patio, and cool their feet on the lawn.
Adeline's grandfather is famous for his barbecued ribs, and that's not him boasting, everyone here this afternoon calls them his famous ribs. He stands on the patio behind his vast, black barbecue and in front of a yellow road construction sign that reads Caution! Men Cooking, turning the ribs and painting them with his equally famous barbecue sauce. All of the guests line up so that he can tong a few ribs straight from the grill onto their plates, and as they wait, they all take it in turns to hold Adeline's elbow, crow over her height and insist she call them by their first names now she is practically grown up.
Adeline's mother has coached her: she's a young lady now and shouldn't tear around in the woods the whole time. She should charm her grandparents' guests. Trapped by her mother's brief in the small crowd on the patio, Adeline holds her eyes open until they tear up and conjures blurry visions through the moisture. The ribs everyone's page 49 eating are human. Mr Reynolds's fawn golf pants are the legs of a faun. Her grandfather would appreciate the pun.
After dinner the sky turns green as it often does before a thunderstorm. Despite the brewing weather, the guests scatter themselves over the perfect lawn for which Adeline's grandfather is also famous. Adeline moves among the clots of adults, charming her way to the woods, where the green above her head deepens and descends. Though she snakes through the trees as long as she can, she still hits the stream within a minute. She rolls up her long shorts and wades in. The glassy water parts and joins around her thighs. Clouds cap the heated air. Orange light cuts through in the west.
When her feet are numb, she returns to the bank and slips on her sandals. Crouching down to pull the back straps up over her heels, she sees her grandfather's lawn winking through the tree trunks in the green evening light. She could reach it in ten leaps. As if pursued, she used to swipe her way through the branches and shove several feet of lawn between her back and the wild boundary before she saw or felt the grass underfoot, or felt her breath heavy and fast, and her heartbeat. Now she feels safe, and a new wilderness has gone inside with the grown-ups, who have conceded the lawn to the impending rain and hail.
Weaving around the basement between women in Bermudas and halter tops, men in golf pants and Izod shirts, Adeline sees and hears the slosh of ice cubes. Her father is working the bar. She walks up to him like a customer.
'Can I please have a root beer, Dad?'
'Hey, sweetheart. There you are. How was your expedition?'
'Okay. But I think I have heat exhaustion.' Adeline raps on the bar. 'So, how about that root beer?'
'Have you asked Mom?' Adeline's father nods towards the far corner of the basement, where her mother is passing around the leftover hors d'oeuvres.
Adeline's grandmother, slipping behind the bar to fix her own drink, tells Adeline of course she can have whatever she wants and to refill her glass whenever it's empty. 'It's a party, sweetie,' she says. 'Excess is the name of the game.'
Adeline's mother looks over at the three of them, zeroes in on page 50 Adeline, points at her glass of root beer and mouths Just One. Then she waves Come Here. Adeline obeys, and her mother gathers her in, winds one arm around her hip and kisses her bare shoulder.
To a tanned blonde with frosted pink lipstick and leathery skin, Adeline's mother says, 'Can you believe this long tall sally?' and to Adeline, 'Do you remember Mrs Spinks?'
'Nice to see you again, Mrs Spinks.'
Mrs Spinks says Adeline has grown into such a beautiful young woman her father will need a shotgun to keep the boys away.
Adeline knows she is supposed to be gracious when adults say such horrible things.
'Gross,' she says.
Mrs Spinks shows her fillings when she laughs.
Later, Adeline's grandfather starts a game of Dime in the Shot Glass. Most who play miss and swig from their glasses, but when the dime drops from between Adeline's knees it rings out success. She photographs the party with her little Kodak camera, reloads twice with new film.
Winding down to sleep has never been so impossible. Moonlight leaks through the gaps between Adeline's eyelids unless she squeezes them very tightly together.
'You just overdid the root beer,' says her mother, walking her back down the hall to her own room. 'Nothing for it but to ride it out. You'll feel fine in a little while-o.'
Flicking on the light as they enter her room, Adeline slips away from her mother and over to the little table where her grandfather pays bills and her grandmother puts photographs in albums. 'Do you want to play cards, Mom?'
'Not really, sweetie. It's after midnight. Here, just hop into bed and think pleasant thoughts and you'll drift off eventually.'
Her mother pulls back the bedcovers and gestures an invitation to lie down. Adeline does not refuse the invitation, but protests as she accepts it.
'I don't have any pleasant thoughts.'
'Oh, come on. It's easy. Here, watch.' Her mother makes a dreamy, drowsy face. 'Candy canes, fairies, people in this house love me.'page 51
'That's the best you can do?'
Adeline complies, and her mother tucks a sheet up under her chin.
After she is alone and her eyes adjust to the inadequate, suburban, moonlit darkness, Adeline feels very cross with the night, with her mother, and the sheet. She thrashes her legs until the stupid thing is bunched at the end of her bed. Her feet drift to the floor, and pull the rest of her body after them. For a cool, supine moment, she presses her cheek against the smooth wooden floor, runs her fingers over the braids and coils of the rag rug. Then she stands and goes to the window. She wants to open it and breathe in the smell of the storm that finally broke at about nine: damp earth and scant remnants of ozone.
'Who on Earth are you talking to, Adeline?'
Her amused grandfather, who pees five times a night, is sitting on the edge of her bed. The light in her room is grey. Adeline goes through all of the steps of being woken from a dream. She blinks, bends her arms to stretch her back, breathes in loudly through her nose.
'I don't remember,' she says. 'What was I saying?'
'It was unintelligible, as always.'
'What time is it?'
'I'm not sure.' He looks out the window, weighs the light with a squint. 'Five? Sorry to wake you, but it sounded like a bad dream.'
'I think it was. Too much root beer, Mom will say.'
'Sugarbeets are the root of all evil.'
'Was that supposed to be funny?'
'That was funny,' says her grandfather, patting her shoulder with mock condescension. 'I'm going to make a sandwich. You want one?'
'Too sleepy.' Adeline shuffles her shoulders under the covers and turns onto her side. 'But you enjoy.'
'All right, Addy.' Her grandfather kisses her on the forehead, right on her damp hairline. 'See you in the morning.'
Adeline wakes up again, to a wail of calamity. It pins her to her bed and then, unaware of having travelled, she is in the hallway looking page 52 into her grandparents' room over the top of her mother's head. Her grandfather is on the floor. Her grandmother holds one of his hands in both of hers, pleading with him in a raw, low voice. Her father kneels beside him compressing his chest, breathing into his lungs.
Her mother is on the phone, but she turns and wraps her arms around Adeline, stops her from going farther into the room.
Adeline tries not to look or, for some messed-up reason, cry. Her mother hangs up the phone and walks her slowly out into the hallway, where she can stop trying.
Adeline and her mother stand in the hallway and cry and make noises to soothe one another.
Cardiac arrest. Those are the words Adeline hears the ambulance crew say to her father and grandmother, white hot words that roll down the hallway astride her shrouded grandfather. His body goes down the stairs and out the front door but the words stay behind in the house, with the cold word dead.
On Wednesday, he will burn to ash.
Today, everyone who came to the party drops by the house again to fill a basin of sympathy and the freezer. Adeline's grandmother will not have to cook for a month. This slow gathering takes place in the living room, a more sober setting than the basement. People laugh, but not the way they did at the party. This laughter has more mass.
Adeline's father sits on the long floral couch under the picture window, guarding her grandfather's chair. Her grandmother does not advocate excess. Her mother does not wave her over from across the room to charm people, but instead keeps her close, holds her hand and doesn't try to brush away her silence.
At dinner time, the family is left alone to eat a spinach lasagne, which they heat in its disposable aluminum dish. Their appetites vary. Adeline's grandmother's is healthy. She prods Adeline's hand.
'Enjoy this meal, honey. That's what he'd want.'
After dinner, the cool trio: bath, pyjamas, sheets. Adeline's parents enter and leave her room holding hands. In between they arrange her bedclothes and kiss her, press their palms to her cheeks.
When her grandmother comes in alone and stoops to kiss her page 53 forehead, the alone part makes Adeline cry. Dry-eyed, her grandmother sits on the edge of her bed and kisses her again.
'There's one from him,' she says. She smoothes the sheet under Adeline's chin though it is folded back with precision already, and sits with her while she cries.
Afterwards, Adeline wipes her cheeks with the backs of her fingers.
'Why aren't you sad, Granny?' she says. Crying has gummed up her lips.
'Oh sweetheart, I'm very sad. It just hasn't hit me yet. And I've had a lot of practice with sadness.'
'What do you mean?'
'I'm an old woman.'
'No you're not.'
'Kind of you to say, but I'm as old as the hills. Older. Now, your story.'
Adeline's grandmother assumes the solemnity that marks the onset of storytime. Adeline is surprised she wants to tell a story tonight, considering, but she does. Every one of her stories begins 'Zaya the Divinely Beautiful did such-and-such in the time between gods and men.' Tonight the did such-and-such is 'grew tired of being alone'.
Adeline doesn't hear much past '. . . and so the Earth gave her a friend'. She is practically asleep with her eyes open. Concentration is out of the question. And anyway, she hasn't really paid attention to one of these stories since she was maybe eight or nine.
Her grandmother's knotty hands describe the actions of the story, the lined skin draping her throat wobbles with the movements of her mouth. Adeline feels on her own face an exhausted version of the attentive look she makes it wear at story time. She wishes she could explain to her grandmother the origin of this look, the love and respect that has plastered it across her face every night for the entire month of July for several years. She thinks that after recovering from the initial resentment generated by the news that Zaya is boring, her grandmother might actually feel touched. She dares herself to say something, but her grandmother is so into the story—Zaya's lover dies of a spider bite, something, something, the usual weirdness—she just can't.page 54
And she is grateful to her grandmother for replacing thoughts of her grandfather—the terrible colour he went, the never seeing him again—with this story. But noting her gratitude is another way of remembering these terrible things. As Adeline is about to start crying again, she realises her grandmother has been looking at her for a long time without speaking, that the story is over. There is something significant in the long look.
'What?' says Adeline.
'You will travel between the Earth and the underworld?' Her grandmother sounds annoyed. 'You will have no control over when you leave the Earth and little control over when you return? The dead will take and release you as they wish? None of that sounds a little familiar?'
Adeline makes only the nn of 'No, should it?' before it does sound familiar. A dream she had when she was little, just after her father's grandmother died.
Her grandmother gives her a little slap on the arm.
'You weren't listening to me, were you?' she says. 'I thought you were wearing your pretending-to-listen face.' She shakes her head, and then gives Adeline another long look. 'I told you this story because I don't know which one of us will go with Grandad,' she says.
Adeline's recollection of the underworld lurches from dream to memory.
Adeline stares at the pair of eyes in the mirror on the back of the music room door. The house is quiet. Her mother and father lie in bed.
Her father says, Gingie.
Adeline wonders where her great-grandmother has gone. She didn't come into Adeline's room this morning, didn't smooth Adeline's cheeks with her hands to open Adeline's eyes. They didn't play together in Adeline's long, long closet where the ceiling slopes so that even Adeline has to sit down under the low end. Adeline turns her head back and forth and watches her irises slide along between her eyelids.
Adeline's mother and father lie in bed. Adeline cries and asks them when they will get out of bed and tells them to get out of bed now. Her mother tells Adeline they are very sad. She pulls back the covers and invites Adeline into bed. Adeline lies with her parents for a while and then she gets up and pads out of their room.
She plays on the sidewalk. She likes to run up and down in front of the chain link fence that surrounds the yard where the big black dog lives. The dog runs with her, his tongue out. He doesn't bark. When Adeline trips and skins her knees and the palms of her hands she almost cries. The dog stops running and looks at her, his ears held up. She waits for the stinging to stop and then runs with him again. Blood blooms along the front of her white knee socks.
She plays on the sidewalk. She feeds out an inch of the tape measure she found in her Christmas stocking and bends it against the plastic case. The inch snaps off in her fingers. She likes the feeling of the metal breaking and the crisp sound of it. She breaks the tape measure into sixty inch-long pieces. She will show them to her father when he gets out of bed.
Adeline's father gets out of bed. He takes her with him to the tobacconist's. The tobacconist's smells like him and is dark in the middle of the day and the carpet there is red and green and blue and black. The same old man is always at the counter and always hands Adeline the same flavour of lollypop. Nowhere else has root beer flavour, but here that's all there is. Every time she visits, Adeline tells the old man she likes root beer.
Adeline and her father walk home between piles of grey snow. He is quiet, but he holds her hand and swings it in his. When they come inside through the back door into the kitchen her mother looks up from the book she is pressing open against kitchen table.
Hello you two, she says. You both have very pink cheeks.
Adeline and her mother and father play together in the long, long closet with the sloped ceiling. Adeline leads the game but her mother keeps trying to change the rules. Gingie never tried to change things.
Where's Gingie? asks Adeline.
In heaven, says her mother. Remember what I told you about heaven?page 56
She's dead, says her father. She's dead and buried next to Grampy in Lindley Park.
Adeline walks into the bathroom in the middle of the night. She climbs onto her little stool and looks in the mirror. She turns her head back and forth and watches her irises slide along between her eyelids. Gingie, not in heaven or Lindley Park, walks into the bathroom.
Adeline, says Gingie.
You know my name.
I know it now. I have remembered some things.
You can talk.
I have to show you something.
Down the hallway, in her bedroom, Adeline lies in bed. She stands next to Gingie and looks at herself lying in bed.
I'm dead, says Gingie. Do you know what that means?
Am I dead, too?
No. Your body is alive. Look. It's breathing. You're breathing. But your body and soul have become separated. Do you understand?
No, says Adeline.
Gingie takes Adeline's hand and they walk back out into the hallway. They walk through the living room to the front door, which Gingie opens.
What do you see? she asks.
Nothing, says Adeline.
Any colours? Grey? Black? White?
That's a good sign.
Do you see nothing, too?
Me? No. I can see everything. The slope in front of the log house, grassy all the way down to the road, and the bridge over Mill Creek, and Grampy waiting in the truck with his elbow poked out the open window. Gingie picks Adeline up and kisses her hair. Come on, honey.
Are we going to heaven?
No, Addy. We're going for a drive.
Gingie carries Adeline close to her body. Adeline feels movement, the pounding of Gingie's feet down a slope, her arm shifting as she page 57 opens the door of the truck. Adeline wraps her arms and legs around Gingie's seated body and presses her eyes into Gingie's collar bone. She can breathe but cannot sense air on her skin. No dust, no popping of tires on loose stones, but she feels they are travelling along a gravel road, and she notices when they stop travelling.
Adeline lifts her head and she can see shadows. The shadows are not as frightening as the nothing.
Gingie has started to disappear and Grampy has started to appear. They look the same: like people, like clouds. Out the window, there are shadows like trees. Slowly, they grow into trees made of stone and metal, with shadows of their own. The trees crowd the bank of a silver river.
As the trees gain substance, the cloud people in the truck turn into a mist. It nudges at the windows. Adeline opens the doors of the truck and watches the mist comb itself through the branches of a tree, split and drift away.
Adeline wakes up and walks into the kitchen. Her mother and father are reading the paper and drinking coffee and there is bright, long sun shining through the windows over the sink.
Though the night is the summer's hottest yet, Adeline's cold limbs crawl towards her body. She lies still and tight, and tries not to overreact.
'It really happened?' The words sit her up, push her past her grandmother, stand her up, feet apart, toes gouging into the braided rug. Afraid she might shout, she leans close into her grandmother's face to whisper, and understands as she does this that she is angry. 'I went to the underworld?'
'With Gingie. Yes, I'm afraid you did. Mommy told me what you said happened at the time, because she was afraid you'd become obsessed with death.'
'You break this to me with a stupid Zaya story?' says Adeline.
Her grandmother shrugs, smiles a little to acknowledge her mistake. 'I figured, she's a kid, tell her a story.'page 58
Adeline is still leaning into her grandmother's face. She feels hands upon her shoulder blades drawing her into a hug. She lets the tension drain out of her shoulders but keeps it in her toes. She hasn't finished being angry yet.
But she has finished talking. The situation is too preposterous to support questions or any further comment. Silenced, she breaks out of the hug, gently though, and lies down again, on top of the rumpled covers, facing the wall. Her grandmother lies down, too.
'Okay, forget the stupid story. I'll give it to you straight,' she says. 'I've been there seven times. The last time was about a hundred years ago.'
Still facing the wall, Adeline says, 'A hundred years ago?'
'Immortality is a feature of our condition.'
'You're not serious.'
'Kid, I wish I was pulling your leg. When Mommy told me what happened to you I just cried and cried.'
'Why doesn't she know about this?'
'Not everyone in an afflicted family is afflicted. If Mommy had it, she would have been taken by now.'
'Taken and returned. We go, we come back. There's really nothing to be afraid of. It's a pain in the neck, that's all. An inconvenience.'
'I'm not afraid.' As Adeline says this, she hears her anger freeze into fear.
Her grandmother's hand travels down her arm. 'I'm sorry. I wanted to wait until you were older to let you in on this. Twelve isn't old enough.'
Adeline's anger comes right back. 'When would I be old enough to hear this? I can travel to the underworld? I'm immortal?'
'Good point.' Adeline's grandmother sighs, a long breath in, a long breath out. Only an immortal being would take so much time over a sigh. Adeline tries it out. Her lungs are cavernous. She and her grandmother are the same. With the out-breath, Adeline loses her anger like smoke through her nostrils. When she has finished her sigh, wrung out her lungs, her grandmother replies with another sigh, and they end up in a longest sigh contest. Adeline's tenth is longer than her grandmother's eleventh.page 59
'Whippersnapper,' says her grandmother.
Adeline turns away from the wall and places her head in the bowl between her grandmother's shoulder and chest. 'How old are you, anyway?' she says.
'Really, really old.' Her grandmother's chest rumbles in her ear. 'I don't know exactly.'
'Yeah, wow,' says her grandmother. She wraps a hand across her forehead as if she can take the temperature of her uncountable years. 'Addy, honey, what we both need right now is a good night's sleep.'
'You think I'm going to sleep now?'
'Want to come to my bed?'
'Yes, please. But if we talk, we have to talk about other stuff.'
'Like what life was like in the stone age,' says Adeline, scooting down to the end of the bed to get out of it.
Adeline's grandmother sweeps her legs across the quilt. Their momentum pulls the rest of her up out of bed. 'I'm not that old,' she says.
In the church her mother has organized for the funeral service—plenty of soaring and leaping architecture, beautiful windows—Adeline sits in a pew with just her mother and her father, between them. Her grandmother couldn't make it out the door this morning. She was crying the way she sighed last night.
Adeline sits in the pew pretending that she is a normal person. It isn't hard. The information she acquired last night will never sound true, and anyway grief insulates her from it. Her grandfather was not religious, but there he is up the front of the church in his coffin, surrounded by flower arrangements. Adeline has never seen her father cry, she's never seen him in a church, or wearing a tie. His tears and the red and blue striped silk dividing his white shirtfront stab at her heart.
This is one church service she can't use beautiful windows to transcend. The terrible novelty of every moment holds her tight inside it.
While Adeline and her father cry, her mother sings and kneels and page 60 prays. She believes in the power of public rites, and rites require the performance of certain things at certain times. But she doesn't seem to hold their lack of decorum against them, and when she is allowed by the rite to sit beside Adeline, she stretches her arms around both of them, and whispers things like, 'I know, I know,' and, 'I miss him, too.' Adeline has heard these words often since Sunday night. Her father has said them to her mother, her mother has said them to her grandmother, and everyone has said them to her as they have all rattled around in the private house of grief.
When the rite has been performed to the satisfaction of the Book of Common Prayer, a recessional hymn blares out, and the six pallbearers and the coffin lead the priest and choir down the aisle, and the mourners out into the parking lot, where the hearse waits.
Adeline's grandfather was the person who taught her 'The Worms Crawl In and the Worms Crawl Out', and now the hearse that will go by, causing people to think they could be the next to die and to host worm pinochle parties, will have him inside it. She might have a chance to ask him if this is funny or not.
She sings the song in her head. All the way to the crematorium, she looks out the window of the black car her mother rented for them to ride in today and sings it, and she's still singing it when she steps out onto the gravel square in front of the low brick building that could be anything but a place where they burn dead bodies.
In the light and lily-filled chamber surrounding the oven, Adeline stops singing. Her grandfather takes his place, ready to burn, and she presses her eyes against the shoulder of her father's jacket. She doesn't want to watch the mechanics of cremation, but this part of the day is family only; there's just the three of them and if she went to wait in the lobby one of them would end up alone. Hiding her eyes isn't enough, and she has to plug her ears as well.
She imagines the inside of the oven acting like a nuclear bomb, that her grandfather will be instantly vaporised but somehow leave them a memento mori to take away. But the oven acts like an oven: slowly. And afterwards he will need processing. Her mother strokes her wrists, draws her fingers out of her ear canals and explains these things to her. They can go home now, to wait for him.
When they get home, Adeline's grandmother is drunk.
'Nice one, Mother,' says Adeline's mother. She leaves her good shoes crooked by the front door, drops her purse on the hall table and disappears upstairs.
Adeline's grandmother sips her scotch. 'This should be condoned. Expected, at least. Your father was the love of my goddamn life.' Her voice rises to a shout directed up the stairs.
Adeline's mother and grandmother never speak to each other this way.
'Astrid,' says Adeline's father gently, but then he loses his thread. He shrugs everything above his belt.
Adeline's grandmother pushes at the air in front of her with her drink. The ice makes noise. 'Go be with Veronica, Mark.'
He drops his shoulders, nods, and obeys.
He's only halfway up the stairs when Adeline asks, 'Do you want another drink, Granny?'
'Addy, you are the only sensible person in this family. But no, thank you. I need to think about sobering up now.'
'Can I have a sip of that one?'
Adeline's grandmother looks into her drink and then holds it out to Adeline, who takes it. As she analyses the smoky, medicinal taste, she hears her grandmother say, 'Let's get out of here.'
Outside, it's 103° with what feels like 100 per cent humidity. Adeline and her grandmother drag the sprinkler on its long hose to a patch of lawn where the woods will shade their heads while their bodies lie in the sun.
Face down, Adeline's grandmother says, 'This lawn will go to the dogs now.' She has gone from 'I've had a lot of practice with sadness', to drunk and housebound over the love of her life, to ruing the demise of the perfect lawn. Adeline lies beside her, face up. The sprinkler waves back and forth, showering their legs for three seconds out of every fifteen. The day is still and the layers of leaves in the canopy are immobile except where the water reaches. Each patch of green, its hue dependent on how much tissue blocks the light, is fixed in place, giving Adeline scope to find a pattern, but there isn't one. There aren't even faces.
Her grandmother executes another of her immortal sighs and page 62 Adeline braces herself for more of the lunatic truth.
'I should tell you, the younger ones are usually taken. For their stamina.'
Adeline really, really doesn't want to talk about this stuff, but she says, 'Okay.' She thinks of Olympic gymnasts, the stoic way they wait inside their youth and training to perform uncommon feats. She tries to make her face look like that, but she can feel her chin pushing into her lower lip. She soothes it down with her fingers.
'I'll make sure Mommy and Daddy look after you while you're gone. They won't understand a damn thing, but they will look after you. You have my word.' No one has ever made such a grave declaration to Adeline before. That it will take her grandmother's word to make her parents care for her while she is gone frightens her. 'But if you wake up in the morning and I don't, I want you to call my friend Dr Hansen.' Adeline's grandmother reaches into the back pocket of her Madras skirt and comes out with nothing. 'Damn. I'll get you his number later. He's a friend. Who understands.'
'You have my word.'
The sprinkler still waves back and forth. There still aren't any faces in the leaves.
'Let's go down to the stream,' says Adeline, too agitated to lie on her back anymore.
Her grandmother sits up. She searches Adeline's face for a sign that all is well and evidently imagines she finds one, because she smiles brightly. 'What a grand idea,' she says. 'I never go down there, but always think that I should.'
The night begins with the cool things to cancel the heat.
Adeline lies in her bed and tries not to farewell her parents when they leave her room. They seem okay, as though their mourning has peaked.
Her grandmother comes in, jaw and shoulders tense with the wait that will end before morning. After they hear her parents' bedroom door close, Adeline and her grandmother walk down the hall to her grandparents' big bed, where Adeline pretends to almost instantly fall asleep.
She can't remember falling asleep, but when she sits up in the page 63 middle of the night, her head remains on the pillow, eyes closed. Her legs stay curled together under the covers as she stands. Her grandmother's eyelids flicker with dreaming. Her grandfather strokes her grandmother's hair. He looks up at Adeline, happy to see her and sorry about the circumstances. She feels the same way. They meet at the foot of the bed and join hands.
He says, 'Ready?'
She nods, and they leave the bedroom and go downstairs, and he opens the front door onto a nothing Adeline knows won't last.
The braided Mercury River is the only feature of the underworld that isn't the strangely purple colour of doom. It flows silver under the skeletal birds and papery insects, silver past the banks covered in wire grass where the trees of iron and stone stand. The Mercury River laps silver at the feet of the dead and the feet of those who tend the dead as they walk its braided channels.
Adeline and her grandfather walk the braided bed of the Mercury River towards the mountain, vast and bare and distant.
'How's your algebra?' he says.
'Come on, Addy. Stay sharp. Don't let this place get to you. How's your algebra?'
Adeline, who has been watching her feet slap the stones, kicks one into the river, feels more alive, says, 'Pretty good, actually.'
'That's the spirit,' says her grandfather. 'And then I say: Oh, yeah? So what's 5q + 5q?'
'And then I say: 10q.'
'Hilarious,' Adeline deadpans, and then she looks at him and what she sees brings hope and guilt. 'Grandad.' She moves closer to him, takes his hand, which is cold and moist. 'You're fading.' She'll go home soon, when he is gone.
He points his hazy profile at the horizon, towards the Mountain. 'That's the way this works,' he says.
Their feet go steady along the stones.
'Have you heard the one about the two bear biologists from behind the Iron Curtain?'page 64
'No, but I have a feeling I'm going to hear it now.'
'If you insist. They went to study grizzlies on the Kamchatka peninsula. One day, they surprised a mating pair and were eaten. Their stunned research assistants shot the bears and opened their guts in the childish belief the biologists would spring out unharmed. But it was carnage. The Russian had been eaten by the female and the Czech was in the male.'
'How is it that my granddaughter lacks a sense of humour?'
Adeline stumbles. Her grandfather puts an arm around her and the contact makes her teeth chatter and her chest ache.
'You're dead, Grandad.'
He twists at the waist, turning his torso as though looking in the mirror for five extra pounds. 'Does it show?'
Her warmth makes him feel more dead the way his coldness makes her feel less alive. They step away from each other. The mineral clatter of their passage overtakes talk.
Rounding a bend, they come upon the main channel where the river occupies a narrow slice of its wide, stony bed. The area is as crowded as a suburban lawn after a barbecue dinner.
Those nearest Adeline and her grandfather greet them with murmurs when they enter the main channel. There are a few in the channel alive like her, but most in the channel are dead.
There are some dead who sit on the riverbed. Though the walking dead become more transparent and amorphous with every step, the seated dead still have recognisable parts and sit with their limbs knotted around their torsos. They face downriver, assailed by the birds and insects. Adeline wants to swat the birds and insects away until she realises they're administering encouragement with their beaks and wings and legs, not torture. The seated dead ignore the birds and insects. They are miserable but will endure.
It appears the wise course is to keep walking. But for the first time since Adeline and her grandfather arrived in the underworld, he stops moving. They stand together on the stones.
'Watch,' he says.page 65
He shivers like the mesh on the bottom of a rolled snare drum, and then part of him drifts away.
'What was that?'
'My left hand, I think. No, my right. My right foot. You know what? I don't think I have parts anymore.' There is no way to see his smile. Adeline has to hear it. 'I love you, Addy. Be brave.' He expends a piece of himself brushing her cheek.
The cold doesn't make her feel less alive this time.
And then he says, 'Now, I'm sorry, but here goes my mouth.'
When the last mute scrap of Adeline's grandad becomes beads of mist on her eyelashes, when those have dried, she is alone in the landscape.
She's pretty sure this is not how this works. Her recently mist-beaded eyelashes are supposed to be fluttering right about now as she wakes in her turquoise blue and white room.
All she can think to do is to keep on walking.
The landscape is a finite roll of stage scenery, cranked along to create the illusion of movement while she pretends to walk as on-stage lovers pretend to ride a tandem bicycle. Trees and grass pass her, trees and grass, trees and grass. The river is a silver cloth shimmied from the wings. The mountain, a painting, vast and bare and distant, never comes closer. Every time she looks down at her feet, they seem farther away.
What her mother used to call buds open. Her feet are no longer just farther away but also partially obscured. The bangs that grazed her eyebrows when she arrived here grow to graze her breastbone.
Birds preen, roost, fly; insects scuttle, dart, clean their faces.
The scenery rolls through its repeats.
And then a bird with noisy wings alights in the bare crown of a tree on the river bank. The bird is a living thing in this world of shades, fat and glossy and not dim purple, but green and blue and bronze and red, with a snow white breast. The bird's colours stop Adeline's feet. The bird looks at Adeline. Birds don't look at people the way this bird looks at her. She responds to the look like a child in a fable.page 66
'Hello. How do you do?' she says. 'My name is Adeline Snow.' The fluidity of her voice stuns her. She expected a puff of dust instead of words, such is her thirst.
The bird replies with a sound that is almost like the voice of a woman talking in another room, or out on the street, beyond a window, but also like the cooing of a pigeon. Alive the bird may be, magic the bird is not. The bird is just another portion of torture heaped upon the fatigue and the thirst and the hunger. Adeline resolves to treat the bird like a bird. No more talking. And so without saying goodbye, she starts walking again.
The bird swoops down from the tree and lands on the riverbank. Something in the noise of its wings suggests delight. Looking at Adeline all the while, the bird hops through the wire grass to the base of the tree and taps the trunk with its beak. The tree turns to wood and pops flowers out the length of its branches. It's a cherry tree. The bird flies arcs across the festooned canopy. Rains of cherry blossom pink shiver to the ground. Adeline reconsiders her resolution not to talk. This bird knows the Earth. This bird knows the way out.
'Tell me what to do.'
As though dislodged by her voice, the rest of the petals fall from the tree like snow from a roof the morning after a spring blizzard. Leaves unfurl and fruit develops, mean and pale, and then ripe red. On the wing, the bird plucks a pair of cherries from a branch bowing low to the ground, lands, and proffers them most charmingly to Adeline, the movements of its generous, chivalrous head like the ticking of a second hand. The sight of food, like sunshine, makes her squint.
She leaps from the riverbed onto the bank and from the bank into the branches of the cherry tree, scooping as she goes the twin cherries from the beak of the bird. With cherries in her mouth and more in her fists, she can hear flight and birdsong, can hear buds bursting and grass growing. Juice trickles down her throat. Colour spreads like syrup across the landscape. The grey drains from the river's silver.
Adeline hasn't returned to Earth but that doesn't matter. She now inhabits a glorious approximation. She can eat. Drink. Rest. Holding pulp in her mouth is a divine luxury. She starts separating the pits from the flesh so that she can swallow what she has in her mouth and eat more.page 67
She propels a pit from between her lips and follows it with her eyes. The pit's trajectory is intersected by a green and gold beetle the size of a matchbox, with its elytra raised like a pair of alarmed eyebrows. It whirrs into the hair by Adeline's ear and says very calmly, in a voice that sounds like hands rubbing together, 'Spit. Spit all of it out and run. Follow me. And don't look behind you.'
Adeline holds the cherries in her mouth. She slides her eyes back towards the bird. She turns her head a degree or two.
The beetle runs a barbed leg along the curve of Adeline's ear. 'Please,' it says.
It is the please—the sincerest, most desperate please Adeline has ever heard—that earns her unquestioning obedience. She reaches her hand up to her mouth and though it kills her to remove the cherries, she pushes them into her palm with her tongue. The mass of them putrefies in her hand. All the colours dim a little. A silence erupts. Through the silence, the sound the bird makes—coo-as-thunderclap— travels to the mountain and back.
Though Adeline has not walked faster than a shuffle since her bangs first brushed her eyelids, now she runs like John Colter. The beetle's frantic wings whirr a foot in front of her and the bird's noisy wings signal pursuit.
Wherever the beetle is leading her is a long way from where the beetle found her, but the bird never seems to gain on them, doesn't eat the beetle or peck out Adeline's eyes, doesn't seem to have any allies to aid in the pursuit. Adeline's panic settles down and finally disappears, and the run becomes as monotonous as her years-long walk. The chase, the escape or whatever, is ritualistic. But it has drained the underworld of colour as night drains the day. And the bird keeps making that awful sound, louder and louder.
Adeline is sure she's grown a little before the beetle finally wheels around, catches a strand of her hair with one of its front legs, and burrows in right by her ear.
'Keep going straight. The spring is just over this rise ahead. When we get there jump in and swim down without pause. You have one shot at getting out of here. Don't mess it up.'
'Why should you care if I mess it up?'
'You're taking me with you.'page 68
Just as the beetle said, there is a silver spring about a yard in diameter below the lip of the rise. Adeline sees it just in time to prepare herself to jump, which gives her no time to respond to the beetle's declaration that it is stowing away. When Adeline's feet hit the surface of the spring, the bird makes the most awful in its series of awful sounds.
The silver liquid sucks Adeline in and pulls her under, turns her body into a dive. She thinks of cormorants, but with her human anatomy must draw her thighs up to her chest to prepare for every great push and kick hard to part the way with her head. She swims in silver, in darkness, in blackness, on and on through blackness.